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Title: The True Story of the American Flag

Author: John H. Fow

Release Date: January 8, 2009 [EBook #27745]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1


Produced by K. Nordquist, Anne Storer and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at (This
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by The Internet Archive/American Libraries.)

 The True Story of


 [Illustration: Fig. 8




 Copyright, 1908

       *       *       *       *       *


I was induced to make this research by the late William H. Egle,
Librarian of the State Library at Harrisburg, whose knowledge of the
early history of Pennsylvania was of valuable assistance to me in
preparing the data for a history of the country along the Delaware river
prior to 1682 (yet unfinished). Mr. Egle agreed with me that the claim
of Mr. Canby that BETSY ROSS designed and made the first flag was
legendary and without that foundation which is so necessary to uphold
claims of this character. Statements of such a character, when allowed
to go unrefuted, do harm to the history of any people, inasmuch as they
encourage others to build "air castles" and purchase old portraits to be
palmed off on others as _our_ "grandfather" who "fit" in the Revolution,
or _our_ "grandmother" who carried supplies to the troops at Valley

History is the best incentive to make men love their country; it
encourages that patriotism which never falters, even at the cannon's
mouth. The sight of a flag or the music of a band merely enthuses as
long as one is in sight or the other can be heard; but history and its
knowledge are lasting and a source of pride. So, therefore, let it be
true in all its details, no matter who may fall from the high pedestals
upon which they have been placed by vain-glorious descendants.

                                                       JOHN H. FOW.


"It will probably never be known who designed our Union of Stars, the
records of Congress being silent upon the subject, and there being no
mention or suggestion of it in any of the voluminous correspondence or
diaries of the time, public or private, which have been
published."--_Rear-Admiral Preble_.

So far as regards the adoption of the combination of stars and stripes,
the same assertion can be safely made. As to the origin of each this
research, it is hoped, will prove conclusively, first, that colored
stripes representing a combination for a common purpose were used nearly
two hundred years before the Declaration of Independence; second, that
stars were used in the union of a flag in November, 1775, on a flag
raised on a Massachusetts privateer commanded by Captain Manley
(see Fig. 1), and that they were also used in the design of the book
plate of the Washington family along with three stripes.

There can be no doubt that the stripes were made thirteen as a
mere matter of sentiment to represent the colonies engaged in the
Revolutionary struggle. As a matter of fact, the number thirteen
appeared in a large number of instances during the Revolution, and was
apparently used as an object lesson to remind the colonists that they
were united in a common cause.

The colors of the stripes have no special meaning or significance,
except that which anyone may apply who desires to make use of his
imagination, or who may become sentimental upon the subject. Many have
written and commented upon it; some have said that the red stripes mean
courage, others war, daring, determination, and so on, and that the
white stripes mean purity, peace, justice, or equity.

    "Thy stars have lit the welkin dome,
     And all thy hues were born in heaven."

As a matter of fact, the idea of stripes in a flag to represent a
combination for a common purpose originated in 1582 in the Netherlands,
and symbolized the union of the Dutch Republic in its struggles against
the power of Philip and the persecutions of Alva.

In a paper read before the New Jersey Historical Society by a Mr. Haven
in January, 1872, he suggested "that the combination of our flag, the
stars and stripes, were favored as a compliment to Washington, because
they were upon the book plate of the General's family." He further
stated "that the stars on the book plate were of Roman origin," and in
support quoted from Virgil "Redire ad astra," meaning and inferring that
a return to the stars meant a future home of peace and happiness for the
human race, and that is what this nation would eventually become.
Assertions and statements similar to the above may be quoted by the
score, wherein reasons are given based upon theory and imagination as
to the origin of the devices which compose our national banner.

The claim that has been made about Betsy Ross, who worked at
upholstering and as a seamstress during the Revolution, who is said to
have lived in a house either No. 80 or 89 Arch street, Philadelphia, now
said to be No. 239 Arch street, as having some time in June, 1776, made
and designed the first American flag as we now worship it, cannot be
corroborated by historical research.

The claim is one of that legendary type that the Rabbins of old handed
down for centuries, and which were believed to be true, until modern
investigation proved their falsity, or like the imagination of artists
who attempt to paint historical events without consulting details,
historical, and geographical. The two most notorious in our history are
Leutze's painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, and Benjamin
West's painting of William Penn treating with the Indians. As to the
first, I write from authority, having been designated to represent the
Legislature of Pennsylvania as one of a committee of three to act in
conjunction with the Trenton Battle Monument Committee to select an
historical subject for the medallion to be placed upon one of the four
sides of a monument, erected at Trenton, to represent Pennsylvania's
part in that memorable event, we chose as the subject "Washington
Crossing the Delaware," and the result of our labor, and investigation
in conjunction with the Monument Committee can be seen to-day on the
west side of the monument. The bronze tablet placed there by the
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania truthfully delineates that notable event.
The late General Stryker, of New Jersey, aided us, and furnished us
books, and documents to obtain part of the data. The tablet represents
a small rowboat, with General Knox sitting in the bow of the boat, and
Washington in the stern, the man rowing the boat was a Mr. Cadwalader.
He lived at McKonkey's Ferry, on the Pennsylvania side of the river.
Leutze in his painting has Washington standing alongside of a horse in a
large scow, such as were used in those days on the upper Delaware to
take produce to the Philadelphia markets. A number of others are in the
same boat, one holding aloft a flag containing a blue union with
thirteen white stars--a flag that did not come into existence until six
months after the battle was fought.


As to West's picture, one need only look at it, and then read the facts
as related in any history of Pennsylvania, and it will be found how
historically untrue it is. One instance alone would be sufficient; that
is, in the painting, the vessel in which Penn came over is anchored
out in the river, when, as a matter of fact, she never came up to
Philadelphia. She was quarantined below Chester because of the smallpox,
and Penn was rowed up the river from Chester in a small boat, and landed
near the residence of the Swensons, two Swedes, who lived at Wicaco, and
from whom he bought the land comprising old Philadelphia. Again, the elm
tree is in full leaf, yet the "pow-wow" that Penn held with the Indians
took place in November, and elm trees do not have leaves on them in this
latitude in November. But why digress from the subject about which I
started to write, merely to show that artists and those seeking for
family distinction are not to be relied upon as truthful delineators of

The Ross claim is based upon the assertions set forth in a paper read in
1870 by Mr. William Canby before the members of the Historical Society of
Pennsylvania. It was claimed in the paper or essay that from traditions
existing in the Ross family, Betsy Ross, the grandmother of Mr. Canby
on his mother's side, was the maker and designer of the first American
flag, and that she lived on Arch street. A research shows that a Betsy
Ross did live on Arch street; but the exact location is doubtful, and
that her maiden name was Griscom. She was married three times, first to
John Ross, second to Ashburn, and lastly to John Claypoole.


It was asserted in the paper read that a committee of Congress, along
with General Washington, in June, 1776, called at her house, and engaged
her to make a flag from a rough drawing, which, not suiting her, was at
her suggestion, redrawn by Washington. From other traditional resources
it was also claimed, that Mrs. Ross changed the stars from six-pointed
to five-pointed. The whole claim is based upon tales told from memory
by relatives, no other proofs have ever been found, and a careful and
thorough research fails to discover any. In 1878 a pamphlet was
issued from the printing office of the State printer at Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania, written by a Mr. Reigart, based upon the above claim, and
calling Mrs. Ross "the immortal heroine that originated the first flag
of the Union." The book had an alleged portrait of Betsy Ross making
the first flag; but it was afterwards discovered that it was really the
portrait of an old Quaker lady who was living in Lancaster at the time
the book was written. The book was so unreliable that it made the Ross
claim appear ridiculous in the eyes of the public.

If Mrs. Ross made a flag in an Arch street house, as claimed, it was
made after a design that had been conceived and born somewhere else, and
her contribution was no more than her labor in sewing on some stars, the
same labor that is given by any girl or woman who works in a flag
manufactory. Even according to the paper which was read before the
Society in 1870 it is admitted that a design made by someone else was
taken to her, but that she made certain changes in it. Now, that is all
there is in the Betsy Ross claim; yet the growing youths of the nation
are being misled and taught an historical untruth when it is asserted
that Mrs. Ross designed, originated and made the first American flag,
and a lithograph has been issued showing that historical untruth, which
has not as good a foundation, in fact, as the two paintings to which I
have referred, because the events sought to be depicted in those two
cases did happen. All the sentiment exhibited over the Betsy Ross story
is lost upon those who have looked the matter up, and are conversant
with the history and growth of our national emblem, which I will now
take up. Those seeking for more elaborate details are referred to
Bancroft's History of the United States; Lossing's Field Book of the
Revolution; Philadelphia Times, April 6, 1877; The American, The
Colonial and the Pennsylvania Archives; Journals of Congress, Vols. 1
and 2; Preble's History of the Flag; Cooper's Naval History; Life of
John Adams; Hamilton and Sarmiento's Histories of our Flag; Sparks'
and Washington Irving's Lives of Washington; Washington's own letters,
diaries and other writings, and William Cullen Bryant's History of the
United States, in which pages 420 and 421 of the third volume he devotes
to a history of the flag, but nowhere does he mention the Ross claim. He
evidently, like myself, could not find any authority for it, yet his
history was published in 1879--nine years after the Ross claim was made.
There are many other authorities, but not one of them gives her the
credit claimed, and all of them except those written since the claim
was made, leaving out the Bryant history, do not even mention her name.

A claim similar to the one made by Mr. Canby on behalf of Betsy Ross,
was made by a woman named Elizabeth Montgomery, daughter of Captain
Montgomery, of the armed Brig _Nancy_. She claimed that a flag, "stars
and stripes," was made early in July, 1776, by a young man on her
father's brig while it was in port at St. Thomas; see "Reminiscences
of Wilmington, ancient and new," printed in 1851, on pages 176 to 179;
but her claim it proved to be absolutely false, as a reference to the
American Archives, vol. vi, page 1132, fourth series, will show that the
Brig _Nancy_, Captain Montgomery, was destroyed at Cape May, June 29,
1776, to keep her from being captured by the British.

At the outbreak of our Revolutionary struggle the different colonies
had flags of their own design, which, if grouped together, would have
reminded one of Joseph's coat, embellished with Latin and other mottoes.
At the battle of Bunker Hill the Americans fought without a flag,
although Botta in his history of the American Revolution says that
there was one with the words "An Appeal to Heaven" on one side, and the
Latin inscription "Qui transtulit sustinet" upon the other (see Fig. 2).
In Lossing's field book of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, page 541, he
states that an old lady named Manning informed him that the Americans
did have a flag at the battle, of which the field was blue and the union
white, having in it the Red Cross of St. George and a green pine tree
(see Fig. 3); but this cannot be considered an authority any more than
Trumbull's picture of the Battle in the Rotunda of the capital at
Washington. He depicts the American flag carried in that battle as
something which no one ever saw or even heard of, to wit: a red flag
with a white union, having in it a green pine tree (see Fig. 4).

 [Illustration: Figs. 1-5]

Frothingham in his history of the siege of Boston says that there was
a flag over Prescott's redoubt having upon it the words "Come if you
dare;" but there is no authority given for the statement. As a matter of
fact, it might have been, for at that period flags were used as ensigns,
with different sentences upon them, such as "Liberty and Union," "An
Appeal to Heaven," "Liberty or Death," "An Appeal to God." Several such
flags were captured by the British and mentioned in the English journals
of that period (see Figs. 5, 13, 14 and 15). Also in Powell's picture of
the battle of Lake Erie in the national capital Perry is seen in a boat
with a flag of thirteen stripes and thirteen stars; yet when the battle
was fought the American flag consisted of fifteen stripes and fifteen
stars, and had been so constituted since 1794, because under an act of
Congress there was to be a stripe and a star added for the two States
admitted after the thirteen colonies became States, to wit: Kentucky and
Vermont. So Congress on the 13th day of January, 1794, passed an act
fixing the number of stripes and stars at fifteen, and such was the
Star-Spangled Banner that Key saw at Fort McHenry in the "dim morning's
light" when he wrote the words of our National Hymn, as a matter of
fact, the war of 1812 was fought under a flag of fifteen stripes and
fifteen stars. In 1878, at a fair in Boston, the flag of the United
States brig "Enterprise," that fought the English brig "Boxer" on
September 15, 1813, was exhibited. It had fifteen stripes and fifteen
stars. It belongs to a Mr. Quincy, of Portland, Maine. It was not until
the 4th day of April, 1818, that Congress passed the act fixing the
number of stripes, alternating red and white, at thirteen, to represent
the thirteen original colonies, and a blue union with a white star for
every State then in the Federal Union, and for those that would be
admitted an extra star to be added on the 4th day of July after the
admission of the State. Now, by a late act, the State is not admitted
until the 4th day of July after the passage of the act admitting her to
statehood. The act reads as follows:

     "An Act to establish the flag of the United States. Sec. 1. Be it
     enacted, etc., that from and after the fourth day of July next the
     flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and
     white; that the union have twenty stars white in a blue field.

     "Sec. 2. And be it further enacted that, on the admission of every
     new State into the Union, one star be added to the union of the
     flag; and that such addition shall take effect on the fourth of
     July next succeeding such admission.

     "Approved April 4, 1818."

The use of stars by the Colonies on their flags was first suggested by a
little piece of poetry in a newspaper called the "Massachusetts Spy,"
published in Boston on March the 10th, 1774. It was as follows:

    "A ray of bright glory
       Now beams from afar;
     The American Ensign
       Now sparkles a star."

 [Illustration: Figs. 6, 7, 10 and 11]

This piece of poetry was the cause of a flag being made in 1775 by a
patriotic vessel owner of Massachusetts having thirteen white stars on
it in a blue union, the body of the flag being white, with an anchor
upon it having over the top the word "HOPE" (see Fig. 1), already
mentioned. It was hoisted on the armed schooner Lee, Captain John Manley
(see also Rhode Island Colonial Records, Vol. X, p. 14. A similar flag
is now in the office of the Secretary of State. It was carried by a
Rhode Island regiment during the Revolution). Either this or the stars
on the Washington book plate, in the absence of any record, may be taken
as reasons for the adoption of the stars in the union in place of the
crosses of St. Andrew and St. George. I have also referred to the
claim that the combination of the stars and stripes was probably adopted
out of love and respect for Washington. If this claim is true, then we
would have, according to the Ross claim the spectacle of Washington
complimenting and honoring himself, when, as a matter of fact, his
whole life disproves such conduct on his part. Now, let us see if this
argument as to the origin of the combination is born out by facts. We
find in a book printed in London in 1704 by J. Beaumont that the
English East India Company had a flag of thirteen red and white stripes
alternating (see Fig. 6) the same as ours, only it had the red cross of
St. George in a white union. In 1705 they reduced the stripes to ten;
but in another work on ship-building, published in 1705, by Carl Allard
in Amsterdam, we find that he fixes the number of stripes at nine. Also
in a book published by Le Haye in 1737 we find that the number of
striped flags in existence in Europe were as follows: Bremen, nine
stripes, red and white, with a union of four squares, same colors;
Rotterdam, eleven stripes, red and green; North Holland, thirteen
stripes, red and yellow; East India Company, thirteen stripes, red and
white, with a white union and St. George Cross, already mentioned. But
no matter as to the number of stripes, it is thus conclusively shown
that thirteen red and white stripes were in use seventy years before
they were adopted by the American Colonies. In October, 1775, while the
English troops were besieged in Boston by the troops under Washington,
it became apparent that we should have some sort of a flag to represent
the Colonies in the aggregate, and show thereby that they were acting in
concert; so a committee was appointed, of which Benjamin Franklin was
the chairman. It was determined that the flag should be called the Grand
Union Flag, and that it should have thirteen red and white stripes
alternating to represent the thirteen Colonies, and the crosses of St.
George and St. Andrew in the union to attest their loyalty to the
Crown (see Fig. 7), as at that period national sovereignty was not
contemplated. The quarrel as claimed was simply over the right to be
represented in the taxing body of the British nation. Preble in his
history of the flag says, on page 225, as to the stripes being used at
the instance of Washington:

"Without further seeking for the origin for the stripes upon our flag,
it is possible that the stripes on his own escutcheon suggested them.
They were also on the flag of the Philadelphia Light-horse that escorted
him on the road to Cambridge from Philadelphia as far as New York in
1775" (see Fig. 8). This latter flag is in Philadelphia, and is the
property of the Philadelphia First City Troop. The Philadelphia Sunday
Dispatch in 1871 gave a very interesting history of it. Messrs. Lynch
and Harrison were Franklin's colleagues on the committee. In November,
1775, they met at Cambridge in Washington's headquarters, and, after
carefully considering all the facts, adopted the Grand Union Flag above
described. "The Union Jack" was called "the king's colors" because of
the crosses to which allusion has been made. The first flag that was
made, there being no record of the name of the maker, was hoisted over
Washington's headquarters at Cambridge on the second day of January,
1776. In a letter to Mr. Reed, dated the 4th day of January, Washington
wrote that "the saluting of this flag by cannon and musketry fire gave
rise to a ridiculous idea on the part of the British in Boston, who,
that day having received copies of the king's speech to Parliament,
supposed that the Colonial troops had also received copies, and that the
salute was in honor of the king, and that the rebellious Colonists had
submitted." So, first, as early as the 2d day of January, 1776, the flag
we all love except the blue union and white stars, was in existence.
Second. We have the names of the men who designed it. Third. That it
was raised at Cambridge. Fourth. The reasons why the combination was
adopted; and fifth, that its first raising was an official act.... So
therefore we now have to deal only with the change of the union from the
crosses to the stars; and this is best arrived at by following the
history of the navy of that time:

The navy of the Colonies in 1775 consisted of armed vessels, either
maintained by private enterprise, by the Councils, Boards of War, or
Navy Boards of the different colonies, the general Congress making no
provisions for the establishment of a colonial navy until October 13,
1775, when, after a general debate based upon the report of a committee,
the following resolution was adopted (see Journal of Congress, Vol. 1,
p. 204):

     "_Resolved_, That a swift sailing vessel to carry the carriage guns
     and a proportionate number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted
     with all possible dispatch for a cruise of three months."

After discussion it was further

     "_Resolved_, That another vessel be fitted for the same purpose,
     and that a marine committee, consisting of Messrs. Dean, Langdon
     and Gadsden, report their opinion of a proper vessel and also an
     estimate of the expense."

Two days later, October 20, 1775, Washington wrote a letter suggesting
to the Congress that a flag be adopted, so that "the vessels may know
one another." This idea was a flag with a white ground, a tree in the
middle, and the sentence: "An Appeal to Heaven" on it (see Fig. 2,
already mentioned).

Four days afterwards the committee made a report, but it was not
accepted, and the above resolution was recommitted. On the 30th of
October the committee made a report recommending more vessels, and four
more members were added to the Committee--Mr. Hopkins, Mr. Hewes, R. H.
Lee and John Adams. At a session of Congress on the 9th of November,
1775, a resolution was passed authorizing the creation of two battalions
of marines. They were to be composed only of those acquainted with
seamanship. This same committee on the 23d of November reported certain
rules for the government of the navy, which were adopted on the 28th
(see journal of Congress 1, page 255). On the 2d of December the
committee was authorized to prepare a commission for the captains of
armed vessels in colonial service. On December 9th the pay of naval
officers, marines and seamen was adopted, and on December 11th a
committee was appointed of one from each colony as a Committee of Ways
and Means on Naval affairs. This committee reported on the 13th that a
number of vessels could be prepared for sea by March, 1776, and that it
would cost over eight hundred thousand dollars to purchase them and fit
them out. This report was adopted, and the same committee was ordered to
go ahead and prepare the vessels for sea, which was accordingly done,
and the following vessels were made ready for service: Alfred, Dorea,
Columbus, Lexington, Fly, Hornet, Wasp, Cabot, Randolph, Franklin,
Providence, Dolphin and Lynch.

In April, 1776, the council of the Massachusetts Colony adopted a device
for a flag for privateers, and its own armed vessels a white flag with a
green pine tree on it (see Fig. 2); but the general Congress made no
provision whatever for a naval flag distinct from the Grand Union Flag
hoisted in January at Cambridge, as stated. In July, 1776, John Jay
complained in a letter that Congress had fixed upon no device
"concerning continental colors, and that captains of the armed vessels
had followed their own fancies." In the latter part of 1775, M. Turgot,
the French Premier of Louis XVI received a report from an agent of his
kept in the Colonies that "they have given up the English flag, and have
taken as their devices a rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, or a mailed
arm holding thirteen arrows." The reason given for the maintenance of an
agent by the French government was to assure the Colonists that they
were esteemed and respected by the French people. The ulterior purpose,
however, of Vergennes and Turgot was to recover back if they could the
Canadian provinces they had lost in their war with the British. Many
such flags were in use, and some were embellished with mottoes the
principal one being "Don't tread on me." Such a motto was upon the flag
of Proctor's Westmoreland County Battalion of Pennsylvania (see Fig. 9).
This flag was displayed at the centennial of Westmoreland County,
Pennsylvania, at Greensburg, held in the year 1873. A splendid cut of
the above flag is in Vol. XIV of the Archives of Pennsylvania. Others
had upon them a rattlesnake broken into thirteen pieces with the mottoes
of "Unite or die," or "Join or die." These devices were first used to
stimulate the Colonies into concerted action against the French and
Indians, and afterwards were revived to unite them in the Revolutionary
struggle. In Bradford's Pennsylvania Journal of December 27, 1775, there
appeared the following article, which is very interesting and logical:

     "MESSRS. PRINTERS: I observed on one of the drums belonging to the
     marines, now raising, there was painted a rattlesnake, with this
     modest motto under it, "Don't tread on me!" As I know it is the
     custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I
     supposed this might be intended for the arms of North America. As I
     have nothing to do with public affairs, and as my time is perfectly
     my own, in order to divert an idle hour I sat down to guess what
     might have been intended by this uncommon device. I took care,
     however, to consult on this occasion a person acquainted with
     heraldry, from whom I learned that it is a rule among the learned
     in that science that the worthy properties of an animal in a crest
     shall be considered, and that the base one cannot be intended. He
     likewise informed me that the ancients considered the serpent as an
     emblem of wisdom, and, in a certain attitude, of endless duration;
     both of which circumstances, I suppose, may have been in view.
     Having gained this intelligence, and recollecting that countries
     are sometimes represented by animals peculiar to them, it occurred
     to me that the rattlesnake is found in no other quarter of the
     globe than American, and it may therefore have been chosen on that
     account to represent her. But then the worthy properties of a
     snake, I judged, would be hard to point out. This rather raised
     than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the
     rattlesnake, I ran over in my mind every property for which she was
     distinguished, not only from other animals, but from those of the
     same genus or class, endeavoring to fix some meaning to each not
     wholly inconsistent with common sense. I recollected that her eyes
     exceeded in brightness that of any other animal, and that she had
     no eyelids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.
     She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever
     surrenders. She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true
     courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling
     with the weapons with which nature favored her, she conceals them
     in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted
     with her, she appears most defenceless; and even when those
     weapons are shown and extended for defence, they appear weak and
     contemptible; but their wounds, however small, are decisive and
     fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds until she has generously
     given notice even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the
     danger of treading on her. Was I wrong, sirs, in thinking this a
     strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

 [Illustration: Fig. 9

     The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her
     food, and, at the same time, is the certain destruction of her
     enemies. This may be understood to intimate that those things which
     are destructive to our enemies may be to us not only harmless, but
     absolutely necessary to our existence. I confess I was totally at
     a loss what to make of the rattles until I counted them, and found
     them just thirteen--exactly the number of colonies united in
     America; and I recollected, too, that this was the only part of
     the snake which increased in numbers. Perhaps it may have only
     been my fancy, but I conceited the painter had shown a half-formed
     additional rattle, which, I suppose, may have been intended to
     represent the province of Canada. 'Tis curious and amazing to
     observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of
     this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as
     to be never separated except by breaking them to pieces. One of
     these rattles singly is incapable of producing sound; but the
     ringing of thirteen together is sufficient to alarm the boldest man
     living. The rattlesnake is solitary, and associates with her kind
     only when it is necessary for her preservation. In winter the
     warmth of a number together will preserve their lives, whilst
     singly they would probably perish. The power of fascination
     attributed to her by a generous construction may be understood
     to mean that those who consider the liberty and blessings which
     America affords, and once come over to her, never afterwards leave
     her, but spend their lives with her. She strongly resembles America
     in this: that she is beautiful in youth, and her beauty increases
     with age; her tongue also is blue, and forked as lightning, and her
     abode is among impenetrable rocks.

     Having pleased myself with reflections of this kind, I communicated
     my sentiments to a neighbor of mine, who has a surprising readiness
     at guessing any thing which relates to public affairs; and, indeed,
     I should be jealous of his reputation in that way, were it not that
     the event constantly shows that he has guessed wrong. He instantly
     declared it his sentiment that Congress meant to allude to Lord
     North's declaration in the House of Commons that he never would
     relax his measures until he had brought America to his feet, and
     to intimate to his Lordship that, if she was brought to his feet,
     it would be dangerous treading on her. But I am positive he has
     guessed wrong; for I am sure Congress would not, at this time of
     day, condescend to take the least notice of his Lordship in that or
     any other way. In which opinion I am determined to remain your
     humble servant."

On the 8th day of February, 1776, one of the committee on naval affairs,
Mr. Gadsden, who represented South Carolina in the General Congress,
presented that body with a flag that was made of yellow silk with a
rattlesnake upon it (see Drayton's American Revolution, Vol. II, page
172; see Fig. 10). No one can tell what became of this flag, yet it was
placed in the hall of Congress in a conspicuous place near the seat of
John Hancock. Some claim that it was this flag that Paul Jones hoisted
on his ship, and others that it was taken South to Fort Moultrie. So
therefore we have, as late as April, 1776, a navy of seventeen vessels,
proper committees of Congress to look after them, a commander-in-chief,
to wit: Esek Hopkins, who was named for that position December 22, 1775;
but no national flag had been made nor one even adopted in July, 1776
(see Jay's letter to the committee), nor in October (see Richard's
letter, dated October 15, 1776), both written months after the date
fixed upon in the Ross claim; but the supposition is that, so far as the
navy is concerned, it either flew the Grand Union or a flag similar to
the Gadsden device, and this is borne out by the records. As to who was
the first naval officer to raise the first American flag to the peak
of his vessel and capture the first prize, we only have to quote
ex-President John Adams, who wrote from Quincy in 1813 to Vice-president
Gerry as follows:

     "Philadelphia is now boasting that Paul Jones has asserted in his
     journal that his hand first hoisted the first American flag, and
     Captain Barry has asserted that the first British flag was struck
     to him. Now, I assert that the first American flag was hoisted by
     Captain John Manley and the first British flag was struck to him on
     the 29th day of November, 1775."

As Captain Barry did not go to sea in the Lexington until February,
1776, therefore this claim of President John Adams is undeniably true so
far as regards Barry, for the records show that Manley, in a schooner
called the Lee, captured the British vessel Nancy, bound to Boston,
loaded with munitions of war for the use of the British troops besieged
there, and among the articles captured was a mortar, which afterwards
was used on Dorchester Heights by Washington's troops in shelling the
British in Boston. This same captain on the 8th of December, 1775,
captured two more British transports loaded with provisions.

The Paul Jones claim rests upon not that his was the first vessel to
hoist an American flag, but that the Alfred was the first commissioned
United States war vessel to hoist the Grand Union Flag; but there is no
record anywhere of the date, and as no naval commission was issued to
Jones until December 7, 1775, the Manley claim made by Adams stands
alone as regards the first American flag distinct from the English
standard as changed by the Colonists; and it is also corroborated by a
letter sent by General Howe on December 13, 1775, while he was besieged
in Boston to Lord Davenport, complaining about Manley's capture of the
Nancy with four thousand stands of arms. Now, I claim that Adams could
not have meant the Grand Union Flag, as it was not agreed upon until
December, 1775, but the one I have described as having a blue union with
white stars, a white ground with an anchor and the word "Hope" over the
anchor (see Fig. 1). The Lee was an armed privateer. In a letter to
Robert Morris, October, 1783, Jones, in speaking of the flag, made the
claim that "the flag of America" was displayed on a war vessel for the
first time by him, he then being a lieutenant on the Alfred; but there
is no record as to whether it was a Continental or Grand Union Flag, or
some other device; yet there are reasons to suppose it was the Grand
Union Flag--first, because the Alfred was in the port of Philadelphia,
and we find from the record (American Archives, Vol. IV, page 179) that
the day signal of the fleets on February 17, 1776, at the Capes of the
Delaware were to be made by using the "Grand Union Flag at the mizzen
peak," which was to be lowered or hoisted according to the information
intended to be given under the code of signals furnished.

In the _Ladies' Magazine_, published in London, May 13, 1776, the writer
states that the colors of the American navy were "first a flag with a
union and thirteen stripes, and the commander's flag a yellow flag with
a rattlesnake upon it."

 [Illustration: Figs. 12, 13, 14 and 15]

In the Pennsylvania _Evening Post_ of June 20, 1776, was published a
letter stating that the British cruiser Roebuck had captured two prizes
in Delaware Bay "which she decoyed by hoisting a Continental Union
Flag." There is no doubt that from July 4, 1776, until June 14, 1777, we
had as a national ensign simply a flag with thirteen stripes, as we had
declared ourselves free from the government represented by the crosses
of St. George and St. Andrew which we had hitherto on our flag, but
having upon it a snake with the motto already so often mentioned of
"Don't tread on me," and this design was used, but without any official
action being taken thereon by the General Congress (see Fig. 11); yet
from May, 1776, or June, 1776, the date fixed upon in the Ross claim,
until May, 1777, the American troops fought the following battles: June
28, 1776, Fort Moultrie. The flag in that engagement was a blue flag
with a crescent and the word "Liberty" upon it (see Fig. 12). Battle of
Long Island, August 2, 1776, the British captured a flag of red damask
with the word "Liberty" on it; September 16th, Harlem Plains, no flag
being mentioned; October 28th, the battle of White Plains, the flag
carried by the Americans was a white flag with two cross-swords on it
and the words "Liberty or death;" November 16th, surrender of Fort
Washington, no mention of a flag; December 26th, battle of Trenton,
the flags in this battle were State flags; all other claims are the
imagination of artists who apparently knew nothing of the history of
the flag; January 3d, Princeton, the same as at Trenton; January 26th,
Tryon's attack on Danbury; and yet in all these engagements that took
place after we had declared ourselves a free and independent people
there is no record in existence, public or private, that the flag
claimed to have been designed by Mrs. Ross in May or June, 1776, was
carried. The first time the Stars and Stripes was carried by American
troops of which we have any positive record was at the battle of the
Brandywine, in September, 1777.

It soon became apparent in 1776 that we were fighting for more than mere
Parliamentary representation, and when the culmination was reached by
the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on the 4th day of July,
1776, the conclusion was also reached that we could not consistently
fight under a standard containing in its union the crosses of St. Andrew
and St. George, devices that belonged to the enemy, but which we had
used, to express our loyalty to the king up to that time while fighting
for a principle. The want of a change in our emblem as originally
adopted can be best appreciated by the contents of a letter dated
October 15, 1776, sent by William Richards to the Committee of Safety,
published in the Pennsylvania Archives, Vol. 5, page 46, wherein, _inter
alia_, he said: "The Commodore was with me this morning, and says that
the fleet has no colors to hoist if they should be called on duty. _It
is not in my power to get them until there is a design fixed on to make
the colors by._" Yet this letter was written four months after the time
fixed in the alleged Betsy Ross claim. Thus it is shown conclusively by
the record that we had dropped the old Grand Union or Continental Flag,
to wit: the Crosses and the Stripes, but had not yet, October, 1776,
adopted a new design, and it was not until June 14, 1777, one year after
the time fixed as to the Ross claim, that a new design was adopted, and
a resolution was passed wherein Congress said "that the Flag of the
Thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that
the union be thirteen stars white on a blue field, representing a new
constellation." In the rough Journal of Congress the word "of" occurs
before the words "thirteen stripes;" in the record it appears to have
been changed, thus corroborating the former use of the thirteen stripes.

There is no record as to how this resolution got before
Congress--whether a member introduced it, or whether it was the
outcome of the report of a committee. No official proclamation of this
resolution was made until September, 1777; but it was printed in the
papers previous to that time as an item of news; so, therefore, from
June to September, 1777, private enterprise may have made many of them.
The Ross claim is ridiculous when it contends that Washington, Col. Ross
and Robert Morris, in June, 1776, one month before the Declaration of
Independence had been adopted, called on Betsy Ross, and that Washington
drew with a pencil a rough drawing of the present American flag, she
making the stars five-pointed. The statement is without any documentary
or record proof. As a matter of fact the six-pointed star was not
adopted because of its use in English heraldry, while in Holland and
France, our allies, five-pointed stars were used. Now, as to the claim
that "Old Glory" was thus made in 1776 by Betsy Ross, what became of it?
Preble says of Canby: "I cannot agree with his claim, and neither does
the record support it" ... and besides it is practically charging
Washington and the rest of the committee with seeking to establish
and set up a national ensign before we had even declared ourselves
a free people with an independent national government, and without any
delegated authority to do so, the record of Congress being silent on the
subject; so therefore we have: _First._ On October 15, 1776, the letter
of William Richards to the Committee of Safety already quoted _shows
that the Ross claim cannot be true_. In fact, at the time the letter was
written we had no colors nor was any designed. _Second._ That at the
time it is alleged the committee called on Mrs. Ross we had no national
existence. We were still simply revolting colonies, not yet having
declared our independence. _Third._ As a climax I have found in the
Pennsylvania Archives, 2d series, Vol. 1, page 164, the following
extract from the Pennsylvania (not the Colonies) Navy Board's minutes,
May 29, 1777, being the first bill for colors for the fleet on record:

     "Present: William Bradford, Joseph Marsh, Joseph Blewer, Paul Cox.

     "An order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross for fourteen pounds,
     twelve shillings and two pence for making ships' colors, etc., put
     into William Richards' store, 14.12.2."

_Fourth._ Also in May, 1777, the State of Massachusetts knew nothing of
a national ensign of the Ross description, as seen by the following bill
paid by the Board of War of that State to Joseph Webb: "To mending an
ensign and sewing in pine tree, 6_s._"


     "May     , State of Mass., Pay to
     Jos. Webb, Dr.     , 1777. To making
     a suit of colors, 44_s._; thread, 12_s._; painting Pine trees,
     etc., 24_s._--4.0.0.

                               "JOHN CONSTON.

        "Armed Brig Freedom."


_Fifth._ If Washington and the others had agreed on a design in June,
1776, as Mr. Canby claims, Washington would have had it officially
adopted, because he above all men knew the necessity of a national
emblem, and more especially would he have done so immediately after the
adoption of the Declaration of Independence in July following, and he
would not then have fought at Trenton and Princeton in December, 1776,
under the State ensigns, or at Long Island or White Plains under the
flags mentioned.

_Sixth._ The first official record of the Stars and Stripes being
carried in battle was at the Brandywine in September, 1777, although it
is claimed that at Oriskany, fought on the 22d day of August, 1777, when
Fort Stanwix was invested by the British, an American flag was made by
using white shirts, a red petticoat and Captain Abraham Swartout's blue
coat (see Lossing's field book of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, page
242; also Preble's Origin of the Flag, page 276).

_Seventh._ In view of the above-recorded facts, the Betsy Ross story
fails to convince the student and searcher after historical facts as to
its authenticity. It is "the imagination of the artist" told in story.
He says: "I fix the date because Washington at that time was in
Philadelphia;" but no one else fixes the date of the Betsy Ross
incident, not even the relatives from whom it is claimed the story was
obtained. And further in the same statement it says: "Washington came
to confer upon the affairs of the army, the flag being no doubt one of
these affairs." Mere guess-work. And if a true guess, then the argument
already used by Preble as to what became of the design and the flag from
that time, June, 1776, to June, 1777, holds good. It was further claimed
that stars and stripes were in general use a year before Congress
adopted them; but it fails _to show one instance to sustain the
assertion_; besides, the Richards letter of October, 1776, _it being
official, completely upsets the claim_. Washington Irving in his life of
Washington says that the General, accompanied by Mrs. Washington, left
New York on the 21st day of May, 1776, and that they were the guests of
John Hancock while in Philadelphia; but neither Irving, Sparks, nor any
other writers of Washington's life mention anything whatever of the
Ross incident. If it happened, it surely would have been mentioned by
someone. Even Washington himself fails to say anything about it in any
of the letters he has written, his diaries, or statements made, nor are
there any allusions to the subject in the published correspondence of
his contemporaries. So therefore the Ross claim simply rests on the
statements claimed to have been obtained from relatives, while against
it are the various facts above given and hundreds of others not
mentioned in this article.

Our flag is the representative of national unity, equal and exact
justice to all men. It stands for no sentimental characteristic. It is a
practical exhibition in itself of the result of concerted action, and
has been from its origin until to-day worshipped as no other ensign
designed by man has ever been. It is loved and respected by all who love
liberty. It represents the government. It represents our honor. To love
it is to love one's country, a duty more sacred than any other, except
love and respect for God.

    "Oh, glorious flag! red, white and blue,
     Bright emblem of the pure and true!
     Oh, glorious group of clustering stars,
     Ye lines of light, ye crimson bars."

Our flag upon the ocean has been the theme for many a song and story,
and in the early days of the Republic the achievements of our naval
heroes were looked upon as more essential for the attainment of our
liberties than victories on shore, as every vessel captured or destroyed
meant the loss of stores and munitions of war to the British troops,
hence early in the struggle, as before stated, private enterprise took
the first steps in creating a navy, then the colonies took it up
separately, and then, as stated, the General Congress.

The Delaware River was the scene of more activity in that direction than
any other port of the Colonies, a reputation which it still enjoys. A
large number of vessels were fitted out, and here it was the first fleet
of American war vessels gathered, and from the Delaware sailed the first
commissioned war vessel to cruise on the ocean, the Lexington, Commodore
John Barry. Of course, there had been many, as I have stated, private
and colonial vessels that had been at sea since the Lee, Captain John
Manley (_ad supra_), in the autumn of 1775, sailed from a Massachusetts
port, and I have no doubt that many of these private and colonial
vessels flew the Grand Union Flag after it had been adopted. So
therefore it is fair to presume from the records that Lieutenant Paul
Jones was the first commissioned officer to raise it to the peak of a
_commissioned American war vessel_, the Alfred; that Captain John Barry
was the first to take it to sea on the Lexington, and that the first to
exhibit it to other countries was Captain Wickes, of the brig Reprisal,
who arrived at St. Eustatia on July 27, 1776 (see American Archives, 5th
series, Vol. 1, page 610). The flag he displayed had thirteen stripes
and a union of yellow or white; but whether it had on it crosses, pine
trees or rattlesnakes no one can tell, as no record can be found; but it
is supposed to have been a yellow union with a rattlesnake on it (see
Fig. 10), as the naval flag had been a yellow flag with a rattlesnake on
it, with thirteen rattles and one budding, and the motto "Don't tread on
me." It was also claimed to have been displayed in the same port on
November 16, 1776, and to have received its first salute from a foreign
power. In looking the matter up it was discovered that the American brig
Andrew Dorea was in the port named on that day, she having sailed from
Philadelphia in September, 1776. On her arrival she saluted the fort,
and the Dutch commander returned it, and he was afterwards dismissed by
his government for doing so. So, therefore, it is fair to infer that
both claims are made upon a foundation of facts that are corroborated by
the records. But the Reprisal's flag must have been the Grand Union
or Continental flag, as she left port before the adoption of the
Declaration of Independence, while the Dorea must have had some other
design for a flag, as she did not sail until September, two months after
the Declaration was adopted. Besides, in a letter from St. Eustatia,
published in the American Archives, Vol. 2, 5th series, page 760, it
said: "All American vessels here now wear the Congress colors." As the
crosses of St. Andrew and St. George had been dropped, the Congress
colors must have been simply an ensign of thirteen red and white
stripes, with an emblem of a rattlesnake on it (see Fig. 11).

The second salute from a foreign power to our flag of which we have any
record was given at Brest by the French commander in August, 1777, to
the General Mifflin, Captain McNeill. It must have been the Congress
flag, as the news of the passage of the act of June 14th creating the
Stars and Stripes could not have been known by those on the Mifflin, as
in those days we had no merchant marine or other means except through
armed vessels of communicating with other countries.

The galleys on the Delaware were in charge of the Pennsylvania Committee
of Safety. They had no colors to hoist in August, 1776, as can be seen
by the following letter of Mr. Richards, dated the 19th of that month.
It was directed to the committee, and said:

     "I hope you have agreed what sort of colors I am to have made for
     the galleys, as they are much wanted."

And this was two months after the alleged date of the Ross claim. The
following letter will give a description of the sailing of the first
fleet of war vessels this government ever owned:

                                     "NEWBERN, N. C., Feb. 9, 1776.

     "By a gentleman from Philadelphia, we have received the pleasing
     account of the actual sailing from that place of the first American
     fleet that ever swelled their sails on the western ocean in defense
     of the rights and liberties of the people of these Colonies, now
     suffering under the persecuting rod of the British ministry, and
     their more than brutish tyrants in America. This fleet consists of
     five sail, fitted out from Philadelphia, which are to be joined at
     the capes of Virginia by two ships more from Maryland, and is
     commanded by Admiral Hopkins, a most experienced and venerable
     sea captain. The admiral's ship is called the Columbus, after
     Christopher Columbus, thirty-six guns, 12 and 9-pounders, on two
     decks, forty swivels and five hundred men. The second ship is
     called the Cabot, after Sebastian Cabot, who completed the
     discoveries of America made by Columbus, and mounts thirty-two
     guns. The others are smaller vessels, from twenty-four to fourteen
     guns. They sailed from Philadelphia amidst the acclamations of many
     thousands assembled on the joyful occasion, under the display of a
     Union flag with thirteen stripes in a field, emblematical of the
     thirteen united colonies; but, unhappily for us, the ice in the
     river Delaware as yet obstructs the passage down; but the time
     will now soon arrive when this fleet must come to action. Their
     destination is a secret, but generally supposed to be against the
     ministerial governors, those little petty tyrants that have lately
     spread fire and sword throughout the Southern colonies. For the
     happy success of this little fleet three millions of people offer
     their most earnest supplications to heaven." See American Archives,
     4th series, Vol. IV, page 964; also Cooper's Naval History as to
     who named the vessels. John Adams claimed that honor. See American
     Archives, 4th series, Vol. IV, p. 964.

The fleet made a descent upon New Providence, and, after capturing the
place and taking away a large quantity of munitions of war and stores,
it left and coasted along the coast from Cape Cod to Cape Charles,
making many captures. On the 17th of April, 1776, occurred the first
engagement between an English war vessel and a commissioned American
war vessel. The English vessel was the brig Edward, mounting sixteen
four-pounders, and, by a strange coincidence, the American vessel was
the Lexington, Captain Barry. It was at Lexington on land in April,
1775, the first shot was fired by Americans, and it was from the
Lexington at sea that the first broadside was delivered at the "Wooden
Walls" of old England. The fight resulted in the capture of the British

No one can tell in the absence of a record the name of the vessel to
first fly the Stars and Stripes. Paul Jones claimed it for the Alliance;
but in Cooper's life of Paul Jones, page 31, occurs the following.
Speaking of Jones' claim, he says:

"He may have been mistaken. He always claimed to have been the first man
to hoist the flag of 1775 (the Grand Union) in a national ship, and the
first man to show the present ensign (the Stars and Stripes) on board of
a man-of-war. This may be true or not. There was a weakness about the
character of the man that rendered him a little liable to self-delusions
of this nature; and while it is probable he was right as to the flag
which was shown before Philadelphia on the Alfred (the Grand Union) the
place where Congress was sitting, it is by no means as reasonable to
suppose that the first of the permanent flags (Stars and Stripes) was
shown at a place as distant as Portsmouth. The circumstances are of
no moment, except as they serve to betray a want of simplicity of
character, that was rather a failing with the man, and his avidity for
personal distinction of every sort."

To corroborate Cooper I have only to state that Jones' claim is absurd
when, as a matter of fact, the Alliance was not launched until 1777, and
Jones did not command her until 1779, when, as a matter of course, she
must have carried the Stars and Stripes (see MacKensie's Life of Jones,
Vol. 1, pages 252 and 253). Much to our regret, as lovers of our
country, we must admit that the first American flag (the Grand Union)
displayed on any of the lakes was by that arch traitor, Benedict Arnold,
on the Royal Savage. He had command of the fleet on Lake Champlain in
the winter of 1776--

    A man who died without a flag, without a
      country, without love, without respect.

The first British man-of-war to enter an American port after the
Revolution was the Alligator, Capt. Isaac Coffin. He entered the harbor
of Boston on the 2d day of May, 1791. He saluted the American flag on
the fort by firing thirteen guns, which was returned. A full report of
this occurrence is to be found in the _Columbian Sentinel_ of May 3d,

The first ship to enter a British port after peace had been declared
flying the American flag was the ship Bedford, of Nantucket, Capt.
William Mooers. She entered the Thames in February, 1783, and proceeded
up to London. She was loaded with whale oil. The first publication of
the terms of the treaty of peace was on the 28th day of January, 1783,
the treaty itself having been made in November, 1782.

The first time the American flag was ever displayed over conquered
territory outside of the United States was on the 27th day of April,
1805, during the war between this country and Tripoli, when, after
the capture of the Tripolitan fortress at Derne, it was hoisted by
Lieutenant Bannon and a Mr. Mann. This flag has fifteen stripes and
fifteen stars, and was exhibited at a celebration on the 4th of July,
1820, at Brumfield, Massachusetts.

For ten years prior to the Declaration of Independence men, in defiance
of the Government, protesting against the oppressive Stamp Duty Act and
other causes, held public demonstrations, at which a liberty pole would
be raised, and flags with devices and sentences upon them would be
carried. Associations calling themselves "Sons of Liberty" were formed,
and so tense became the feeling that the people looked with contempt
both upon king and Parliament. So pronounced did it become that the
obnoxious act was repealed in 1766, after having been in operation only
four months. But these associations of "Liberty Boys," formed in 1765 in
every community from Boston to Charleston, continued in existence, and
formed the nucleus of the army of the Revolution, and the very devices
and sentences used in 1766 were afterwards adopted and put upon their
flags in 1775 and 1776 prior to the adoption of the Grand Union Flag and
the present Ensign.

I have in the foregoing pages endeavored to collate truly all the
documentary and other tangible evidence that is in existence to fully,
absolutely, and without fear of contradiction, sustain the contention
that the Betsy Ross claim exists only because of a statement made by a
relative who did not produce one scintilla of documentary or recorded
evidence to sustain the claim. The records of the time refute it, and
the dates are so at variance with facts that are known that it is a
surprise that any credence whatever has been given to the story.

This is God's land, overflowing with promises to the oppressed of all
nations. Our shields have been dented in honorable warfare to establish
individual liberty and religious freedom, and in all the coming years
may our Government reign supreme over all this fair land, and everywhere
from ocean to ocean may our flag, like the Bow of Promise, be a sign to
all the people of the earth that, being heaven-born, it is a covenant
that liberty will and shall be maintained as long as love of country
exists in the breast of man.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

The following ERRATA were noted in the original text. These have been
corrected in the above text.

Page 40, line 1. Page 104 should be page 164.

Page 53, line 16. 1776 should be 1766.

Fig. 9 should be the Flag of the Westmoreland Battalion, page 26, and
not the Flag carried by the First Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line, at
page 40.

End of Project Gutenberg's The True Story of the American Flag, by John H. Fow


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